5 Steps to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

Completing the FAFSA is an important step in the college planning process, and I believe most students benefit from having this document in place. It improves the student’s ability to qualify for need-based financial aid, and in some instances merit aid (scholarships and grants—free money that does not need to be paid back). The FAFSA submission generates your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is a critical number in the financial aid process.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the form families need to complete to qualify for federal financial aid and many state aid programs. Getting organized makes the process go more smoothly. The FAFSA electronic form became available on October 1st for the upcoming college school year of 2019-2020. I recommend waiting about a week or so to submit after it opens, since the system was overhauled this past year and there may be a glitch or two. By waiting a few days, you may avoid some system frustration and it should have little impact on your financial aid award.

Here are 5 steps that will help you navigate the FAFSA submission:

1. Creating the FSA ID

The first step in completing the FAFSA is creating a FSA ID. This user id and password is used to sign federal documents and gives you access to some of the federal loan systems. For most students, both the student and one of the parents will need to create their own FSA ID. This ID is tied to the social security system and requires validation before you can use it to sign your FAFSA. Depending on the time of the year, validation usually comes through in a few days.

2. What You Need to Complete FAFSA

Completing the FAFSA requires both student and parental information. The two most critical tax documents are the 1040 Tax Form and W2 salary information. You will need the following information:

  • Name, address, and date of birth
  • Social security number for both Student and Parent(s) if filing as a dependent student
  • Federal tax information or tax returns
  • Records of untaxed income, such as interest income
  • Length of current state residence
  • College list with city and state (especially important for a college that has multiple campuses)
  • Parents current marital status
  • Student’s high school name and completion date
  • Student’s current academic position
  • The education level of the parents
  • Cash, savings and checking accounts balances; investments for both student and parent
  • Real estate value (not the primary residence) and business and farm assets for the student and parents if she/he is a dependent student. (Family owned business and farms do not need to be included in the asset number)
  • Student’s driver’s license number
  • Number of other siblings in college
  • FSA IDs for student and one parent
  • 3. Entering Your College List

    The FAFSA allows you to input ten colleges at a time. If you have more than ten colleges, you will need to go back and enter the remaining colleges. You will need to wait until the initial FAFSA submission has processed. FAFSA Processing will generally take 1 -3 days depending on the time of year. Once the original FAFSA is processed, then you can enter the remaining colleges. I recommend listing the public colleges first, and then the private colleges in alphabetical order.

    It is recommended that you include the campus location since some colleges have multiple locations. You want to make sure it goes to the correct college. On the other hand, some colleges have centralized the financial aid process, and only one campus will be listed, and your college application needs to indicate the campus.

    4. DRT links FAFSA to IRS

    The colleges verify the FAFSA information through the Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) interface with the IRS. The IRS DRT is available to parents who have submitted their income tax with the IRS. This tool transfers the tax return information directly onto the FAFSA form. To import this information the tax information needs to match the input exactly. To access the DRT, a family will need to enter the FAFSA system and go to the tax section of the FAFSA. At that point, the family can access the IRS and transfer the data.

    5. Signing the FAFSA

    The FDA ID is needed to sign the FAFSA. It is your electronic signature. For the dependent student, both the student and one parent will need to sign the FAFSA. You need to realize this is a legal document and should reflect the information correctly at the time of signature.

    Keep in mind that the FAFSA needs to be submitted each year for each student. Some colleges require additional financial aid information such as the CSS Profile or their own supplement forms. For newly entering college students, getting the form in earlier is beneficial. For returning students, check your college’s deadline for submission of the FAFSA.

    Fall is FAFSA season, and, unlike Halloween, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid should not be scary, if you get organized and have a little patience.